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Meaning of "Life": Long Prison Sentences in Context

NCJ Number
Marc Mauer; Ryan S. King; Malcolm C. Young
Date Published
37 pages
This report documents the significant increase in the imposition of life sentences in the United States and the consequences of this trend for both offenders and victims.
One of every 11 offenders (9.4 percent) in State/Federal prisons is now serving a life sentence; and of the "lifers," 26.3 percent are serving a life sentence without parole (a 17.8-percent increase from 1992). The time served by lifers increased 37 percent from 1991 to 1997, from 21.2 years to 29 years. In 6 States, all life sentences carry no possibility of parole; and 7 States have more than 1,000 inmates serving life sentences without parole. This increase in prison time for lifers has resulted from changes in State policy rather than increases in violent crime. Four of every five lifers released in 1994 had no arrests for a new crime within years after their release. This compares with an arrest-free rate of one-third for all offenders released from prison. Under current circumstances, the imposition of a life sentence has a potential cost to taxpayers of $1 million. An examination of the offense characteristics of lifers and the judicial process by which their sentences were imposed shows that lifers include offenders who have not committed violent acts. California's "three strikes" law, for example, states that any three felonies, whether or not they are violent offenses, can result in a life sentence. In one case, the third felony offense committed by a man involved the theft of children's videotapes worth $153 (Christmas gifts for nieces). This man is now serving a sentence of 50 years to life. Further, previous opportunities to review and modify life sentences have been reduced or eliminated in many States. Thus, in many cases, life sentences involve a misuse of limited correctional resources. This report challenges the supposition that all of these sentences are necessary or effective in increasing public safety. This report concludes with recommendations for changes in law, policy, and practice that would, if adopted, address the primary deficiencies in current procedures for imposing life sentences. 6 tables, 63 notes, and appended description of this report's method for estimating time to be served in prison